The Mormon face of American Christianity

Glenn Beck and Jim Wallis

For months now, Glenn Beck has been writing Jim Wallis’ name on his famous chalkboard on a regular basis.  The Sojourners CEO is the kind of “social justice Christian” Glenn can’t stand. 

Wallis has a pastoral relationship with Barack Obama.  Since Beck wants to paint the president as a godless Muslim-sympathizer (if not closet Muslim) it is necessary to discredit the kind of Christianity Obama espouses.

Beck has nothing personal against Jim Wallis, or Barack Obama for that matter.  But the talk show host is currently selling himself as the face of American Christianity and that means overcoming two big problems.  First, Beck is a Mormon, and most evangelical Christians (myself included) were taught that Mormon’s aren’t Christians.  Secondly, the “liberal” Protestant mainline denominations are uncomfortable with Beck’s relgion and his politics

The Protestant mainline denominations (most Presbyterians, Methodists, Episcopalians, Lutherans, the United Church of Christ, the Disciples of Christ and the American Baptist Churches) hardly qualify as liberal.  They are equally divided between Republicans and Democrats and generally cluster near the political center.  Mainline seminary professors and denominational leaders are considerably more progressive than the rank and file, however, and these are the folks Mr. Beck is concerned about.  If they qualify as genuine Christians, Glenn can’t be the leader of Christian America.

Hence the message: if you’re in a church that talks about social justice, head for the exitSaturday’s big rally at the Lincoln Memorial was Beck’s answer to the “Mormon’s aren’t Christians” problem.  Beck’s version of Christianity combines support for the armed forces (a theme Americans instinctively embrace), support for American Capitalism, and support for what scholars call “American Exceptionalism”. 

Exceptionalists believe that America, for all her flaws, is “God’s last and only hope”.  I stole that arresting phrase from Bill Leonard, the former dean of the Wake Forest University Divinity School (and my former church history professor).  Leonard applied the term to Southern Baptists who have traditionally eschewed all manner of  ecumenical entanglements.  If Beck can persuade the Southern Baptists that he speaks for Christian America, he is in. But this could be difficult.  Richard Moore, the dean of theology at the Southern Baptist Seminary in Louisville, Kentucky, calls Beck’s weekend bash at the Mall a “scandal“. 

We used to sing that old gospel song, “I will cling to an old rugged cross, and exchange it some day for a crown.” The scandalous scene at the Lincoln Memorial indicates that many of us want to exchange it in too soon. To Jesus, Satan offered power and glory. To us, all he needs offer is celebrity and attention.

By way of contrast , Richard Land, the president of the Southern Baptist Convention’s Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission, was thrilled with Mr. Beck’s religious extravaganza: 

The rally did almost everything it could to not be political, and to be as ecumenical as possible. We had rabbis praying. We had Catholic priests praying. We had Muslim imams praying and participating. We had Protestant Christians. And he kept saying over and over again: This is not a political event, and politics is not the answer. The answer is spiritual renewal and rebuilding a civil society one person; one family; one church, mosque, synagogue, temple and one community at a time.

Land isn’t saying that Glenn Beck is a Christian, mind you.  In fact, he says Beck’s Mormonism is even further afield from Southern Baptist orthodoxy than Barack Obama’s Mainline liberalism.  But Land isn’t inclined to be picky.  The country needs to turn back to God, and Land is willing to support anyone who preaches that simple message . . . even a Mormon.  Beck may be headed for hell; but he’s still God’s man.\

Moore and Land are politically savvy survivors in the shark infested waters of Southern Baptist politics.  How will Mr. Beck’s overtures go over with the folks in the pews? 

Pretty well, I expect.  The culture wars have had such a powerful effect on the nation that folks are inclined to think in Manichean, light-and-darkness terms.  Either you’re with God or you’re with the other guy.  And since Glenn says nice things about God, the military, religion and capitalism he must be one of us.  Besides, he thinks America is God’s chosen people, so that pretty much seals the deal.

Jim Wallis, on the other hand, has been critical of American military entanglements, American capitalism, and the American religion; he doesn’t think America is God’s chosen nation and he is a personal friend of Barack Obama.  Ergo, Wallis is a child of Satan if ever there was one.

That’s the kind of nuanced reasoning Mr. Beck is banking on.

Over at the God’sPolitics blog, Jim Wallis is extending yet another olive branch to his chief critic.

Wallis doesn’t care a lick about Beck’s Mormonism. 

I’ve been asked by people in the media if it matters that you are a Mormon. I unequivocally answer, no, it does not. We don’t want more anti-Mormon bigotry any more than we want the anti-Muslim bigotry now rising up across the country. By the way, you should speak to that (against it). On Saturday you talked about the fact that our nation has some scars in our past. I think one of those scars is the historical persecution and bigotry that many Mormons have faced, as well as Catholics, Jews, and Muslims. But, as you said, instead of dwelling on the bad things of the past, we need to learn from them and look to the future. The best way to do that is to make sure we all stand for religious liberty and tolerance, and are careful not to denigrate anybody else’s faith tradition, experience, or language. If you are ever in need of an evangelical Christian to speak out against anti-Mormon sentiment directed at you or others, I am here to help.

You can find the rest of the Open Letter to Glenn Beck here.  Jim wants to sit down with his nemesis for a quiet chat, but I doubt he’s holding his breath.  As a consumate culture warrior, Glenn Beck must preach an us-against-them message.  He needs Barack Obama every bit as much as Jon Stewart needed George W. Bush.   Rush Limbaugh’s power base is the radical right and he can never transcend this constituency.  Mr. Beck, on the other hand, wants to be America’s religious sweetheart and that means moving back the tent pegs.  Can he pull it off?  Only time will tell.  One thing is certain, sitting down for a cup of tea (or three) with Jim Wallis, Barack Obama or anyone else on Satan’s side of the line would be a strategic disaster. 

Glenn may be goofy, but he ain’t dumb.

2 thoughts on “The Mormon face of American Christianity

  1. I read Wallis’s open letter to GB on the Sojourners blog. Only posted yesterday, and has already (as of a few minutes ago) garnered 148 comments. The SSojourners blog frequently features the ongoing disagreement between Wallis and Beck, and these always attract a lot of comments, usually split about 50/50 between supporters of Wallis and of Beck. Many of the supporters of Beck are libertarians who dislike any government programs. They are certainly not all evangelical Christians (nor are those supporting Wallis). This argument is going to be with us for quite some time!

  2. Taylor Branch, author of the trilogy on America in the King years, has a guest editorial in the NYT this morning on the conversion of Glenn Beck. He seems to think it’s real.

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